Season after Pentecost, 2023
"That sounds awful!" was one alto's response to the 8 bar descant I composed for Sunday after Ascension. There was a good bit of grumbling from the rest of the section as well.
My descant was composed for David Ashley White's tune "Palmer Church" (Hymn 327 in the Hymnal 1982)
Given that the hymn is eight verses long, this descant will be part of the textural contrasts employed during its singing Sunday morning. I also felt that it would be an appropriate gesture during Eastertide, especially the Sunday after the Ascension. My descant employs one word: "Alleluia!"
David Ashley White (b. 1944) is a Houston composer whom I met for the first time in Lübeck, Germany. As a native Houstonian, and an acquaintance of David Ashley White, I didn't hesitate to write descant to his tune.
After the complaints, however, I thought a bit more about what I had done.
My descant begins after the first bar of the tune, and echoes it in contrary motion. So there is a bit of a surprise factor, but this really isn't so unusual or innovative. In the first few bars, I think I am successful in my desire to begin a "Texan trope" of White's melody.
I can see objections arising in my prolongation of the B in bar 4 which begins a series of calculated dissonances in bar 5. Bar 5 contains dissonances of a second with the tune on beats 1, 3 and 4. Beats 3 and 4 contain a stepwise voice exchange between C and D.
The remaining notes are consonant, except the penultimate E which forms a (rather pleasing) eleventh and a "tonic anticipation" for the final E-minor chord (which I was tempted to Picardy, but didn't).
So what's wrong with this? It's a little dissonant I guess. In retrospect, and in an attempt to assist the team of musicologists who monitor my every note, I will admit that this descant is heavily influenced by Jean Sibelius (1865-1959). I have been listening to a lot of Sibelius Symphonies lately (particularly in conjunction with year-end festivities) and I think I accidentally absorbed some of his techniques.
In listening to Sibelius, its hard to hear the seams; he blends everything together. Rather than admit that Ashley White's tune has a "middle," I try to obscure the midpoint with the held B. The stepwise voice exchange is something that Sibelius often employs in his symphonic writing where he has different timbres at his disposal.
These techniques emerged in my writing not only because of the "Finnish Factor" but also because of the phrasing and subject matter of the text.
Alpha-Omega, unto whom shall bow
all nations at the doom, is with us now.
-Bangor Antiphoner, ca. 690; tr. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), verse 8.
There is no line-end comma in this verse. That funky B helps tie the tune together where other verses (except 6) would pause.
The inbreaking of God's presence is highlighted with my "Alleluia!" but it is an Alleluia of fear. God is the first and the last; the risen and ascended Christ who will bring all things to completion at a "doom" of his design.
Is this too much to think about 8 bars of music? Does all my rambling make my descant any less "awful?" Or, rather, does it make it more awe-full? I don't know, but I am willing to listen, learn, and to make changes. Feel free to listen to the score, print it, and try it yourself. (Drop me a line if you do.)
The descant is dedicated to one of my choristers who, not surprisingly, was particularly taken with the tune name.
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